The Things We Carry (and Must Learn to Leave Behind)

canstockphoto20086498In 1993, I dropped out of grad school after one miserable year. I was a failure, barely surviving academically, juggling three jobs, in over my head in so many ways. I make jokes about it, but when I pitched a nonfiction proposal to an agent last week, she asked about my education. I was truthful and while she was interested in my proposal, I could tell that I did not have a good “platform”.

For nonfiction proposals, agents and publishers want someone with a platform. A platform is the writer’s expertise, background, and being a known entity and expert in their field. I was a little proud that I could pitch an idea on the fly, except that it really wasn’t that spontaneous. And it was never my first intention.

While in grad school, I came across the published journal of a Russian woman who had disguised herself as a man and fought in the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. She was the first known female officer in the Russian military. She had a difficult upbringing. Her mother hated her and at one point, had tossed her out of a moving carriage. She survived, but from that point on, her mother had no part in her care.

The story appealed to me not only as a veteran, but also as someone who was engaged in an ongoing battle with her own mother. It found me at the right time and stayed with me. For nearly 25 years, I’ve kept notebooks, collected research materials, and always planned to write a historical novel someday. The agent pitch I did at the conference brought clarity to me. I didn’t have the chops or the credentials for writing nonfiction history.

I went to the library last night to work on a writing plan to follow up with various agents. While I’m still working on a novel, I thought I’d take a look online to see if there were any other research materials available for a fictional work on Nadezhda Durova. I sat back, stunned. An American writer had written and published a historical novel about her just six months ago.

Dreams, delusions, disenchantment. I’m quite adept at spinning my own story. A story I’ve carried with me all these years – of failure and struggle and the possibility of writing my way to redemption – a story of rationalizations and justifications. Of never fully feeling the pain of the moment in which I am told or learn, once again, that I’m not good enough. All these years, I’ve been disappointed in myself, maybe even a little ashamed. But I had a good idea and maybe that would redeem me.

canstockphoto9159128bI am always reminded of that line by The Talking Heads “How did I get here?” The tale of my academic life is one of happenstance. When I joined the Army at 17, being clueless and uninformed, I wanted to be a French linguist. I had four years of high school French and being a linguist sounded more enjoyable than company clerk or truck driver. The demand for French linguists in military intelligence was, of course, not particularly high. They needed Russian linguists. Okay then.

After spending a year in intensive Russian language training at the Defense Language Institute, I moved onto more training, a permanent duty station in Germany and when my four years was up, I gladly left. The shortest way to a degree meant taking Russian, because I was able to transfer a lot of Army credits. So there I was, on track for a degree in Russian studies. As far from parlez-ing as I could be. Even further from writing.

I finished a four year degree in a subject that had never been part of my “when I grow up…” narrative. With no clue as to next steps, I applied to grad school. In the English department. The admissions rate was about 7% at the time. Applying to a program tied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was like spitting in the wind. I didn’t get in, but I did get accepted into the Russian Department.

It took me a year to realize that I hated my life, hated school, hated getting up at 3:30am to do a janitor job, go to classes, put in my hours as a research and translation intern, and then head to my job at Target.

The final straw was after I had to do a presentation on Russian morphology. In Russian. canstockphoto8727525The professor pulled me aside at the end of class and said that he was going to do me a favor by giving me a B-, instead of the C that is considered failure in grad school. I was going through complete misery just to scrape by on someone’s favor. And paying thousands of dollars for the honor. Time to quit academia and start working fulltime.

The years that followed were progressive administrative jobs, still carrying my notebooks and research materials from Iowa to Minnesota, into a home I share now with my daughter and husband. Since focusing on writing the last few years, the possibility of writing that historical novel seemed closer than ever. Until last night and seeing that Linda Lafferty had written The Girl Who Fought Napoleon.

I didn’t feel crushed or disappointed. In some ways, it was liberating. Carrying that novel idea was more than just a writing project. It was justification for all that education in Russian language and history. It was redemption for having failed. It was a reason for having wasted so much time and money doing something for which I had little passion. Even the kernel of complicated mother-daughter relationships has dissolved in the face of relative peace I’ve made with my own mother over the years.

canstockphoto10806366Last night, I dreamed of getting divorced from someone other than my husband. I woke up feeling sad and disappointed and bemused. The person didn’t have a face that I recognized, but this morning I surmised his name was Failure. 25 years is a long time to carry shame and I think I’m ready to put it down. There are other stories to tell.

Quitting While You’re Behind

In 1992, I quit grad school after completing one year. On every level, it felt like failure – giving up, not sticking it out, not going the full mile. Thousands of dollars in debt, working three jobs, living on coffee and fear of failure, the final straw was when a professor told me that he was giving me a B- as a favor (C was considered failing at the graduate level). I thought “why am I working my ass off for this?” I didn’t have a good answer, so I knew it was time to be done.

My educational track was determined by efficiency. I had transferable credits from my Army training as a Russian linguist, so I tested out of all the basic college requirements and did my undergrad degree in a couple of years. Even as a nontraditional student, I still hadn’t figured out what I was doing, so onto grad school I went.

With letters of recommendation, passable GRE scores, I was accepted into the graduate program in the Russian department. My favorite professor specialized in linguistics, so I decided that it would be my focus as well. It took two semesters to realize that I was in way over my head.

I was working a couple of retail jobs, as well as doing an internship translating documents, struggling to make ends meet and barely had time to focus on my studies. And every single day of classes, I was reminded how very far out of my league I was. As a military linguist with an infantry division, I had done a lot of listening and transcribing and not much speaking. I was supposed to give class presentations, in Russian, about morphology and etymology. The combination of my weak speaking skills, poor study habits and sheer exhaustion meant that I could not bluff my way out of this disaster. And I was paying for it.

Over the years, I’ve revisited that whole miserable mess in my head, considered returning to school, feeling envious of my friends who have multiple advanced degrees, wondering if I could have really applied myself. The result of leaving grad school is that I took on a full time job with benefits, worked to pay off my debts, began an illustrious administrative career that has made me a jack of many trades. I now have solid organization, editing, technical, problem solving, accounting and multitasking skills. I have real-life skills that have served me well outside the world of academia, no matter what the state of the economy. I still work hard and am doggedly persistent, but I know when to quit.

Regardless of the miasma of dysfunctional family dynamics that I was raised in, several lessons stuck with me from my childhood. You work hard, you don’t quit and you remain doggedly persistent. Even if it kills you. As an adult, some of my best decisions involve quitting. There is perhaps an art to leaving, but for me, it’s never a smooth process. I clumsily blunder my way through good-byes, resignations and breakups. Things sometimes have gotten very ugly and it takes me a few years to realize that despite my awkward bowing out, I was on the right track.

As I prepare for my next career transition, moving from a business manager to a full time writer, I realize that I need to dust off my “quitting” skills and remind myself why it’s a good thing. I’m late to the writing career and I can’t spend a lot of time with the usual buffet of guilt, regret and 20/20 hindsight. I’ve begun to look at how I spend my time, recognizing that quitting needs to apply to some of my smaller habits and patterns of thinking. I need to quit believing my self-worth is associated with a paycheck. I need to quit distracting myself from the things that are important. I need to quit the constant editing and judging of myself that prevents me from letting authentic and productive writing occur. Sometimes quitting is the only way to move forward.

Have you ever quit something uncertainly and discovered later that it was the best thing you could have done?